Capital Audiofest 2012
In the last few years there have been an increasing number of small regional audio shows springing up. Many of them come out of the home brewing community, some of them out of the more mainstream commercial high end community, but they're all making an attempt to unite people in a common love of audio.
The Capitol Audiofest in the Washington DC area is one of these smaller shows that is becoming bigger, to fill a void left by some of the larger high end audio events that have disappeared in the past few years.
The Audiofest took place at the Crowne Plaza in Rockville, a fairly new hotel that seems to have been built in precast concrete modules, so each of the rooms has concrete walls. (This is a great thing in terms of isolation between rooms but not necessarily in terms of internal room reflections). Various rooms were set up, mostly by individual audio dealers. This meant that were were a lot of different setups, but often people in one room would know a lot about one product in the chain but nothing about some of the others. I got a chance check out most of the rooms but when a room is run by a dealer showing a large variety of different products it's difficult to check everything out in a limited time like I had. Consequently, this review may miss a lot of good and important products and is only meant to be a small sampling of things I heard at the show and liked. I'm an audio production guy more than a home hi-fi guy, so I come into this with a certain set of biases too.
I met a friend of mine from the audio production community there, and he came up to me and asked, "Is it just me, or is 90% of the stuff here sounding horrible?" I had to nod and agree with him, and point out that this is no reflection on a show which is trying to do its best to improve that, but it's a reflection on the state of the whole high-end community as a whole.
This isn't a place for a long screed about how I think the high-end community is being sidetracked into worrying about the wrong things and into some very misguided design practices. Maybe I'll write that up here in these pages some time in the future.
But, I wish I could do to you readers what I did to my friend. I took him up to the third floor to listen to the Soundfield Audio booth. Because, although 90% of the stuff at the show, and maybe 90% of the stuff in the high end world in general, didn't sound very good, the Soundfield Audio room sounded very good.
Soundfield was showing the 1812 Overture, which was a very interesting three-way system. On top was a 12" coaxial driver (and it's a very, very good coaxial driver with some interesting engineering to make for a clean top end), and a sub woofer below. These combined to make for a system that has very even and flat dispersion, that is the frequency response remains very much the same as you get off the main axis of the speakers. But, they have added a small full-range radiator to the rear of the top box, which adds some energy into the diffuse field much the way planar dipole speakers do. The effect was a soundfield very reminiscent of a planar speaker, but with a much, much wider sweet spot. When my friend heard them, he smiled.
This is a speaker that will make you smile. Why hadn't I heard of these guys before?
Now, I have said earlier that that many of these shows more or less originated with the DIY community and I don't know if that's the case here, but there were a few companies showing that seemed to be folks who were taking their DIY projects public. Also, there were two demo rooms run by a local organization called DCAudioDIY. These guys were showing off a lot of home brew projects and I have to say some of them sounded better than the stuff in the professionally-run rooms. There was a small D'Appolito design, an infinite baffle speaker that sounded far better than an infinite baffle design has any right to, and a lot of very well-built amplifiers and the like. If you're ever in the DC area and just want to talk about home brewing I would look these guys up.
Also, let me say that there were very, very few rooms that did any room treatment at all. I saw some foam here and some very badly improvised high frequency damping in places, but most of the dealers made no attempt to deal with the horrible acoustics of the hotel rooms. I'd like to extend a hand also to the DCAudio DIY folks for making a serious attempt at dealing with the problems.
There were a number of rooms with speaker systems that may have been great, but the room issues were too severe to make any judgments about them.
This was especially a problem with large horn-loaded systems. Volti Audio was making a horn-loaded speaker that looked to be of the La Scala II basic design. Beautiful construction, some great craftsmanship, but it wasn't really possible to tell much in such a small, boomy room. Incidentally, the Volti Audio booth had a Platines Verdier turntable, the first one I'd ever actually used. It was beautifully constructed, and although it was unable to play my torture test disc cleanly, that may just have been setup. It did well enough and sounded good enough that I definitely want to try it under better conditions.
In a similar range, the folks at Classic Audio Loudspeakers are making a reproduction of the classic JBL Hartsfield loudspeakers, as well as reproductions of some of the JBL exponential horns with with acoustical lenses. Unfortunately they didn't have them on display but they did have folks there able to talk about them. (They did have some of their own designs on display, but again ran into the same problem with speakers designed for a large room not working well with the small concrete hotel rooms).
The only planar speaker I saw there (and you may note here that I have a considerable bias toward planars) was the GT Audio Works GTA2, a planarmagnetic speaker with a ribbon tweeter and two woofers added. It sounded very bright but very clean. That brightness might have been the result of the room (and it's clear they were trying to improvise some room treatment), and the speaker is definitely worth investigating.
I got a chance to hear the MBL 116 Radialstrahler Elegance loudspeaker for the first time. This is a speaker with a very strange set of midrange and treble drivers, involving a large number of ribbons intended to produce an omni-directional pattern. The sound was clean and even and I couldn't hear any real aberrations as I moved up and down, forward and back. This is a speaker a lot of people have talked to me about over the years but actually listening to it just whetted my appetite for hearing it under better conditions.
I got to hear the Gallo Stratus speakers with their TR1 subwoofer. It's interesting, whenever I hear anything from Anthony Gallo, it always looks very bizarre and improbable, and it usually sounds a whole lot better than you'd expect for the way it looks. The Gallo speakers were being demonstrated by Pierre Sprey of Mapleshade Records who is similar in some respects himself in that he always comes out with strange and bizarre ideas but in the end winds up with good sound.
Audio Note UK was showing the Audio Note Model E. It was a bit hard to find the room since there were several rooms marked "Audio Note UK" but only one with the Audio Note speakers in use, but it was worth it when we found it. Simple small two-way monitor speaker with a dome tweeter that was clean and understated.
Philharmonic also had a small floor-standing three-say system with a planar midrange, ribbon tweeter, and cone bass driver. Recessed sound, not in your face at all with a good image and really quite natural overall. Again, I'd like to hear it in a room without a flutter echo and see how it really performs.
Oh, and Sonest also had a small two-way system using a ribbon tweeter with a wooden waveguide assembly front. It gave good sound with a reasonable sense of space from a small 5W amplifier and also seems well worth checking out.
Just about every amplifier I saw anywhere was a tube design. There were a couple of new solid-state amps. Charles Rollo from Swap Meet Audio was demonstrating Lenahan Audio speakers with the new Arion Audio solid-state amps, for a very clean sound (and some of the few non-spitty dome tweeters I heard at the show). Aurender was showing their S-10 off. But beyond that, there was a lot of tube stuff.
Audio Power Labs had on display their 833TNT, a huge power amplifier using 833 transmitting tubes. They didn't have them available to listen to, unfortunately, and while they had their excellently-built smaller 50NT amplifier set up, it was hard to tell much about the sound under show conditions. I continue to be fascinated with the whole idea of using the 833 for audio, since it was originally used for audio in big transmitter modulation decks and seems a good choice for high power applications where you have the room and power for a triode.
Bob Carver's company, bobcarver.com, is now making a very solid-looking line of conventional tube amplifiers. They look clean and well-designed and with a lot of attention paid to output transformers. How do they sound? Who can tell?
I saw Atma-Sphere MA 1.5, a 7241-based power amplifier. I've always liked the way Atma-Sphere gear sounded, and I wish I could have actually heard this one but it was not possible at the time.
Border Patrol is a new, small company in Maryland that is making what looks like some very promising new tube amplifiers. Again I couldn't really tell much in a quick hotel room demo but they look to be solid designs with attention paid to things like careful power supply design which will directly affect the sound.
I wish I could say more about amplifiers since there were so many of them at the show, but the sound of an amplifier is (or should be) subtle and show conditions are not conducive to making subtle comparisons.
I saw a surprising amount of open-reel tape there, from a guy in the swapmeet section selling used 4-track consumer tapes from the sixties and seventies on through several booths which were using an open-reel machine for source material.
United Home Audio was showing off their UHA-HQ recorder, which looks like it is based upon the Tascam BR-20 machine. They've replaced the original head stack with a custom half-track head stack, and done some new custom electronics inside. They're starting with a decent solid platform which, although it may not have originally been up to professional standards, is much better than any of the consumer open-reel machines made. They then have set it up so it can be used in the modern audiophile world.
I got a chance to hear the MBL 116 Radialstrahler Elegance loudspeaker for the first time. This is a speaker with a proprietary set of carbon fiber midrange and treble omnidirectional drivers. The sound was clean and even and I couldn't hear any real aberrations as I moved up and down, forward and back. This is a speaker a lot of people have talked to me about over the years but actually listening to it just whetted my appetite for hearing it under better conditions.
There were a large number of record dealers there selling everything from old cutouts to current audiophile pressings. This included a new internet dealer, Entertainment Destination, which specializes in new vinyl.
But, what made me happier than anything else at the show was finally meeting Todd Garfinkle from M-A Recordings. He uses simple two-microphone technique with some hand-constructed microphones based on DPA capsules, and gets some really staggering results, to the point where I would say he has consistently made some of the best sounding small ensemble recordings that I have ever heard. A cut off of a recording he made of Begona Olavides is one of my standard test tracks and it was an absolute pleasure and honor to meet him in person.
As I mentioned above, Pierre Sprey from Mapleshade was there selling the latest of the Mapleshade albums as well as the Gallo speakers. And Mark Waldrep from AIX Records was there. AIX is pioneering the multi-format disc, making DVDs containing many different mixes that can be played with various playback system configurations so that you always have the recording mixed properly for your configuration rather than relying on some sort of automatic up mixing or down mixing features.
Benchmark was showing off some stuff, and while I think of Benchmark as a top-grade studio products vendor, they also make some A/D hardware like their DAC1 USB and DAC1 HDR for home use. I have nothing but the best things to say about their products in general and I was very pleased to see the DAC1 HDR which is a line stage with a DAC and headphone amp in one small box.
The Bel Canto equipment was all over the place... power amplifiers, DACs, preamplifiers. I've liked their gear in the past and I wish I'd had the time at the show to look at the newer generation of gear.
There was a large swap meet section down on the first floor in which people were selling all kinds of used gear, from some fairly high end stuff to some stuff that we made fun of in the seventies. I loved the mix of gear and I loved watching people from very different parts of the hobby socializing together. Some of the speaker systems in the swap meet were.... peculiar to say the least.
Oh, and I want to say that although they didn't have a room, folks from Voice Coil and AudioXPress supplied free magazines. If anyone is even remotely interested in home building audio, I highly recommend these mags.
I heard a lot of things that sounded pretty bad, two things that were patently fraudulent, and a couple of salesmen who clearly did not understand basic physics. But, that's how the high end world is, and finding a few gems out of the dross is what makes it fun. There were a couple of gems here that were well, well worth the trip.